Disability and HR Strategy: Preparing Your Workplace for Disability Inclusion

August 9, 2017

Disability and HR Strategy: Preparing Your Workplace for Disability Inclusion

With 24 percent of American households having a person with a disability, chances are that one in four of your employees are impacted by disability in some way—either the employee themselves might have a disability, or be the caregiver for a spouse, parent, or child who has a disability (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Yet, most companies have very few people who are willing to disclose that they have a disability or talk about disability issues at home. Building a workplace organizational structure that supports disability inclusion is the first step toward successful recruitment, as well as retention and engagement of individuals with disabilities and their family members. There are a number of practices which can help to maximize this possibility.


Senior leadership commitment. The likelihood that the organization will embrace disability is immeasurably increased by making proactive recruitment and advancement of people with disabilities a pronounced priority from the top. As stated in an earlier blog in this series, research by Cornell University showed that when companies had strong senior management commitment for hiring people with disabilities or had explicit organizational goals targeting recruitment of persons with disabilities, they were approximately five times more likely to have hired a person with a disability in the past year (Erickson, von Schrader, Bruyere, VanLooy, & Matteson, 2014). In line with this, it is important that company leadership demonstrate the sincerity of this pronouncement by mobilizing middle management to support this strategy, placing people with disabilities in leadership positions throughout the organization, and creating an internal infrastructure that supports needed next steps. This can include creating and communicating about the accommodation process and appointing a person to ensure that applicants and employees with disabilities get the opportunities and resources that they need to be successful.

The likelihood that the organization will embrace disability is immeasurably increased by making proactive recruitment and advancement of people with disabilities a pronounced priority from the top.

Effective communication. Communicating the company’s disability inclusion initiatives—both within and external to the organization—is also critical. Messaging from the top about disability inclusion being a priority is the first step, but must be more than a one-time statement. This point must be reinforced regularly through continued messaging that communicates specific organizational disability inclusion goals, progress toward these goals, and relevant disability information and resources. Using naturally occurring internal organizational communication company newsletters, brochures, notice boards, email blasts, blogs, and webcast streaming can be most effective (Linkow, Barrington, Bruyère, Figueroa, & Wright, 2013).


External communication about disability inclusion as a part of the organization’s strategic imperative is also important. Communication in product and service marketing that people with disabilities are a part of the target demographic by having related images positively highlighted in marketing materials, websites and advertisements is a start in the right direction. Similarly, clearly articulating in recruitment materials that the organization is actively seeking out diverse candidates, including individuals with disabilities, will heighten the likelihood of attracting a diverse applicant pool that includes individuals with disabilities.


An integrative infrastructure. Another core element to a successful disability inclusion strategy is building an integrative infrastructure that embeds disability considerations throughout the organization’s functioning (Linkow et al., 2013). This means that disability becomes a part of the diversity and inclusion initiative in an integral way, viewed as important a focus as race, gender, and sexual orientation, while also recognizing that individuals with disabilities are a part of each of these other diversity and inclusion special interests as well. As previously noted, recruitment strategies should make clear that disability is a part of the organization’s priority in all talent outreach initiatives.


Equally as important and sometimes overlooked, is that there are disability considerations in many other facets of the organization’s functioning, such as facilities management, operations, technology and procurement. This should include an overarching accessibility plan that attends to physical accessibility of facilities such as accessible restrooms, curb cuts, and parking places, as well as technology accessibility for online recruitment processes and professional development opportunities. Such an approach ensures that both applicants and employees can much more readily access the larger organizational resources throughout their employment experience.


Employee Resource or Business Groups (ERGs). ERGs have emerged as one of the central diversity initiatives over the last few decades, and have been shown to be an effective tool for increasing employee engagement across different workplace sectors. More recently, ERGs have evolved beyond the support group and social network mentality that characterized their early development and have not only grown in numbers but have expanded their activities. A study on the evolution of ERGs (Mercer, 2011) found that in many organizations these groups are functioning as business partners by providing insights into new markets, supporting the development of targeted products and services, acting as brand ambassadors, and contributing to corporate social responsibility efforts. Until fairly recently, disability, for the most part, was left out of the ERG movement, but that is changing.


Numerous companies are now realizing that ERGs with a disability focus can be of assistance in designing a disability-inclusive infrastructure, pointing out needed changes to the company accommodation process, assisting with recruitment of applicants with disabilities, and designing products and services that will appeal to the growing market segment globally that are people with disabilities. ERGs can also assist with messaging around disability disclosure, which is the next disability organizational effectiveness practice discussed here.


Ability to self-identify. Critical to building a disability inclusive workplace is creating a culture where people are comfortable being able to self-identify as a person with a disability. Many people acquire disabilities after being hired, and at some point might need an accommodation to continue to function effectively. Sending the message that individuals with disabilities are actively being solicited to become members of the company’s workforce not only increases applicants with disabilities, but also sends the message to current employees that it’s okay to self-identify. Creating opportunities for people to self-identify in a variety of ways is also important. This can be as simple as asking about accommodations needed as a part of the application process or by putting disability as a demographic item in the annual company engagement survey.


Data-collection procedures. Data collection, and its subsequent use in developing metrics, is an essential part of the self-assessment process for a successful workplace disability inclusion strategy. To do so, it is important that the organization puts metrics and analytics in place that assist the organization to monitor its related efforts across the employment process. An organization cannot assess an effective disability inclusion strategy without using efficient data-collection procedures and metrics that identify progress through benchmarking on areas that need improvement. The organization’s ability, willingness, and comfort to gather disability-related data from employees and, in varying levels of specificity, to measure its progress against its diversity inclusion goals is a necessary part of building an effective disability inclusion strategy.

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Erickson, W., von Schrader, S., Bruyère, S., VanLooy, S., & Matteson, D. (2014.) Disability-inclusive employer practices and hiring of individuals with disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation Research, Policy and Education, 28(4), 309328. Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/springer/rrpe/2014/00000028/00000004/art00007

Linkow, P., Barrington, L. Bruyère, S., Figueroa, I., & Wright, M. (2013.) Leveling the playing field. Research Report R-1510-12-RR. New York, NY: The Conference Board. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/edicollect/1292/

Mercer. (2011.) ERGs come of age: The evolution of employee resource groups. A study by Mercer’s Global Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Practice. Retrieved from www.mercer.com

U.S. Census Bureau. (2012.) Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the U.S., Census Bureau reports [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html

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Read Part I in our Disability and HR Strategy series: Expanding Your Talent Pool and Diversity Outlook

Read Part II in our Disability and HR Strategy series Identifying Diverse Leadership Talent Within Your Existing Workforce

The Authors: 

Susanne M. Bruyère, Ph.D., CRC, is currently professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, ILR School at Cornell University. Dr. Bruyère is also project director and co-principal Investigator of numerous federally-sponsored research, dissemination, and technical assistance efforts focused on employment and disability policy and effective workplace practices for people with disabilities including: the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employer Practice to Improve Employment Outcomes for Persons with Disabilities; and the Organizational Practices to Increase Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities: The Power of Social Networks. She is a past president of the Division of Rehabilitation Psychology (22) of the American Psychological Association, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, and the National Council on Rehabilitation Education. She can be reached at smb23@cornell.edu.